Records: Lakers 42-37 (8th in the West), Warriors 45-34 (6th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (8th in the NBA), Warriors 104.0 (10th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.7 (T 18th in the NBA), Warriors 102.5 (13th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Kobe Bryant, Earl Clark, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Warriors: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, David Lee, Festus Ezeli
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash (out), Jordan Hill (out); Warriors: Andrew Bogut (out), Brandon Rush (out for the season)
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Talking Points: The Lakers season moves along at 20% intervals, with three games remaining in their quest to win their final five to get into the post-season. Forty percent of the way home, they’ve done exactly what they’ve needed to do even though the games featured stretches of inconsistent and frustrating play. But that’s been the case all season for the Lakers, the fact that they’ve found a way to win so many of those types of games recently speaks to an improvement however. Earlier in the year, these would have been games the team lost. Today, they can go back to the film room and critique a win rather than watch all the little miscues that cost them another game.
Tonight they face a team on their own mission. The Warriors currently sit in the 6th spot, but do so tenuously. They’re only a half-game ahead of the Rockets and would surely like it to stay that way so they could match up with either the Nuggets or the Clippers when the playoffs begin. Both of those teams offer their own problems to overcome, but those match ups seem dreamy compared to the discipline and coaching acumen of the Spurs or the all around fantastic play of the Thunder. So, even the though the Warriors have had a pretty successful season, they still have plenty to play for in these last few games on their schedule.
With the Lakers at home, a certain amount of comfort will be in the air but they can’t let that relax their intensity in any way. X’s and O’s will matter a great deal in this game, but the Blazers game was a nice reminder that simply playing hard on both ends of the floor is what makes the bigger difference. When the Lakers started to pressure the ball in Portland and aggressively look to protect the basket, good things happened. When they slipped even the tiniest bit, the Blazers rained down open jumpers and built up a nice lead. The Warriors are more than capable of doing the same, especially with Curry, Thompson, Jack, and even Barnes on the floor. Add in the nice mid-range game of David Lee and that’s a lot of guys capable of hitting shots.
So the Lakers will need to be sharp in their rotations, but even more so will need to be sharp in how the defend in the Warriors excellent off-ball screen game. Few teams have the combination of shooters and good screen actions that the Warriors have and they’re excellent at setting up good shots for their guys by running a variety of pin-downs and motion sets to free them up. Thompson is particularly effective on same-side pin-downs where he comes off the screen looking to get off a quick jumper. It remains to be seen if Kobe or Clark defends him, but whoever does will need to fight hard through the picks and never cheat over the top to gamble for a steal. Furthermore, the Lakers’ big men will have to do a good job of hedging out when the screen is set to help disrupt the entry and, if need be, contest the shot.
Thompson, however, is not the key to the Warriors’ attack. The keys are Curry and Lee, both of whom have had good games against the Lakers this season. Steve Blake will get the initial assignment against Curry and he’ll need to be as aggressive with him as possible without fouling him on his jumper. Curry has one of the quickest releases in the league and will fire off a jumper out of the blue off cross-overs and step backs that create only a sliver of space. Aggressive defense can lead to fouls in those situations, so that needs to be balanced with good execution of the team scheme by forcing Curry into help with the big men doing their job of playing higher on the screen to be in a position to help.
As for Lee, he’s a very good isolation player who can hit the jumper or drive into the paint to either hit a quick shot or to set up a post move. Gasol will have his hands full and will need to use his length to bother Lee when he’s inside and close out on him aggressively to disrupt his jumper. Also, Lee (like Pau) is a trigger man at the elbow for a lot of the Warriors’ sets. He needs to be pressured when he’s holding the ball out there and forced to make tough passes while a defender plays him close. If he’s allowed to simply stand at the elbow and read the defense, he can pick apart the defense like a quarterback with a clean pocket.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Jarrett Jack. This guy always seems to kill the Lakers and expect him to be aggressive tonight in looking for his own shot. Jack is a real spark off the bench and has the ability to hit the open jumper but to also create for himself in isolation and in the P&R. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kobe (or even Ron) guard Jack for long stretches in this game just to try and give him a different look.
Offensively, the Lakers simply need to continue to do a lot of the same things they have been lately. With Andrew Bogut out, the Lakers should have an easier time attacking in the paint and would do well to get Howard and Gasol going via direct post ups and by delayed entries after the pick and roll. If Kobe and Pau can continue to find chemistry in that action, it should open up shots inside for Dwight right at the rim in the 2/4/5 lob action that is such a joy to watch. The P&R should also set up open jumpers as the defense collapses into the paint to try and slow Pau and Dwight down. If Kobe and Blake continue to look to move the ball early in the possession, guys will get their chances to score and, in the process, keep the defense from gearing up on Kobe all night.
Speaking of Kobe, he would also do well to stay aggressive in trying to get into the paint, both off the dribble and when moving off the ball to spots on the floor where he can isolate. In the Lakers’ HORNS sets, Kobe has often drifted out to 18-20 feet to set up a one on one move, but if he can stop short on his cuts to the wing and instead try to establish the post 15 feet and in, it would help him set up shots closer to the rim where he’s either more likely to hit the shot or allow for a teammate to hit the offensive glass.
As for the rest of the team, they really need to be active moving off the ball tonight. The Warriors love to crowd the paint by hanging below the screen in the P&R, but after a pass or two they try to fly back to the three point line to contest the ball on the wing. If the Lakers can cut behind their rotations, they can set up shots going to the rim. Good things happen when Clark and Jamison are going to the basket for the majority of their shots and tonight, with the right movement, they can make that happen.
I usually end with thoughts about this being a must win game, but we’ve heard all that before. So, instead, I’ll say to simply enjoy this game the best that you can. The stakes are high and that will lead to heightened emotions, but just remember that this is what these guys play for. These might as well be playoff games and that intensity should try to be enjoyed as much as possible.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.